Giving machines the human touch

Applying computerisation to customer services is a tricky business. The key to success, writes Julia Vowler, is to spend a lot of...

Applying computerisation to customer services is a tricky business. The key to success, writes Julia Vowler, is to spend a lot of time at the front-end and set tight business parameters

Does a customer phoning in want to speak to: a) an intelligent human being who can solve their problem, or b) a computerised voice that explains the umpteen options on offer and instructs you to press the hash key in order to be held in a queue listening to Barry Manilow or worse?

It doesn't take a masters degree in customer support to guess that most would prefer to avoid option b.

The trick, though, is to get the best of both worlds - intelligent human, smart and responsive computerisation.

Kevin Ramskir, customer support technical manager at enterprise system supplier J D Edwards, believes that applying the right kind of computerisation provides better customer service.

Last August the company rolled out a new interactive voice recognition (IVR) and R‚sum‚Routing (RR) system developed for it by Siemens.

Without human intervention, the IVR has to classify an incoming call within a range of 100 call types depending on the problem and pass it on to the RR system.

The RR system then has to match the problem profile to the skill set of the technical consultant, all without the customer hanging up seething with frustration.

As with all customer-facing systems, the key was to spend a lot of time making the new systems user-friendly.

"We spend a lot of time at the front-end, and set very tight business parameters, such as never having a call end up at a voice box instead of an agent," says Ramskir.

The customer should spend as little time as possible talking to a computer.

"We've limited the IVR to three levels, and the maximum number of options at any one time is six," Ramskir explains.

This means that customers can avoid the computer system completely. "They can hit zero and drop out at any point to speak to a human administrator," says Ramskir.

Speed is of the essence. Even as the IVR menu collects the customer's requirements they are being passed through to the RR matching database, which starts searching for the right consultant.

"They [the consultant] follow procedure as much as possible while drilling down to the customer's problem - they are menu-driven to ensure they capture all the necessary information," says Ramskir.

Man and machine working in close harmony to zap problems fastÉ an IT dream.

  • J D Edwards' European call centre will be the subject of a forthcoming BuyIT/Computer Best Practice case study

  • Read more on Data centre hardware